The baseball world lost another brother on Saturday as former big league right-hander Ken Johnson passed away after a long fight with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He was 82.
Johnson was a 13-year big league veteran having played for the Kansas City Athletics (1958-1961), Cincinnati Reds (1961), Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1962-1965), Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1965-1969), New York Yankees (1969), Chicago Cubs (1969) and Montreal Expos (1970).
His career 91-106 mark may not appear all that impressive on the surface, but his career 3.46 ERA tells a different tale. He played for some fairly mediocre teams – to put it best – and that was evident in his statistics. In 1962, Johnson led the National League with a 3.87 K/BB ratio, with 178 strikeouts to just 46 walks. Despite that, he had a 7-16 record that season.
However, Johnson does have a special place in history and given his unfortunate luck at times, it’s almost fitting. On April 23, 1964, while pitching for the Colt .45s, Johnson no-hit the Cincinnati Reds. What set this no hitter apart from every other one in history, was that the Reds won the game. Johnson became the only pitcher in history to pitch a 9-inning no-hitter and lose the game.
In the top of the 9th, Pete Rose reached base on a bunt and advanced to second as Johnson threw wild to first. After Rose advanced to third on a 5-3 fielder’s choice, Rose scored on an error by second baseman Nellie Fox on a ball hit by Vada Pinson.
“I pitched the best game of my life and still lost,” Johnson said after that game. “A hell of a way to get into the record books.”
His place in history, no matter how dubious, is still a place in history. Placing him in a group of other ill-fated no hitters like the 1917 game in which Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs and Fred Toney of the Reds combined for a nine-inning double no-hitter before Vaughn gave up two hits in the 10th and the Reds won the game. And the 1959 game where Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates threw 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves before losing it in the 13th.
You may not have got the breaks you deserved in your career, but we will certainly remember you for that one night of brilliance on a warm April night in Houston. Rest in peace Mr. Johnson.